Massimo Ranni grabbed a hunk of his freshly baked bread from the countertop at the back of his bakery and crushed the crispy crust between his fingers. Outside, it was a drizzly early May day; inside the bakery, it was warm and fragrant with the scent of happily married yeast and unbleached flour.
“You hear that sound?” he said, audibly working the crusty bit of bread into crumbs. “That’s the sound of life. Bread is life. That is what I try to tell people. It’s beautiful.”
Several weeks ago, Ranni and his wife, Anne Marie, opened Massimo’s Breads, a European-style bakery, in a cozy street-level space on Hammond Street in downtown Bangor. Area diners may know the couple from their successful restaurant, Massimo’s Cucina Italiana, located less than a block from the new bakery.
Those who have eaten at Massimo’s know that, in addition to the pasta, meat and seafood dishes that have tempted palates since the restaurant opened in November 2007, the bread is what Ranni is famous for. Before he came to Maine, Ranni, who is originally from Rome, was famed in New Jersey for his bakery Il Forno. There, he created breads, pizza and pastries that quickly amassed a loyal following, eventually attracting the attention of The New York Times, which praised his work as luxurious and fragrant.
After that, business was so big that he and Anne Marie decided to move to Maine to escape the hustle of the city. They visited Portland and Rockland, but decided on Bangor after enjoying the architecture downtown and the people they met. Within a few months, the restaurant was booming.
“We came to Maine to be quiet,” he said. “But we can’t be quiet. Everything is crazy again.”
Ranni is from the Lazio region of Italy, which includes Rome. He grew up eating the bread that he now makes himself, learning from his family how to bake chewy ciabatta, crusty loaves and pizza Romana. He’s known in Bangor as a chef, but his heart lives in the bakery.
Massimo’s Breads boasts a three-tiered stone oven, and in the wee hours of the morning, Ranni and his staff crank out loaf after loaf of rosemary bread, ciabatta, whole-wheat oatmeal bread — a smaller, round crusty loaf — and his signature crusty bread. The crusty bread is the one that he lovingly cracks the crust of, to show customers how different it is from other artisan loaves they might buy at the grocery store.
“This is the bread that is from my childhood. It’s crusty, so it stays fresh, and the inside is chewy,” he said. “It isn’t what you get at the store. I don’t have to explain it. The food talks, not me. People may speak different languages, but when we taste something, we all speak the same language. Our taste buds tell us what it is.”
The other signature item at Massimo’s Breads is the pizza Romana, which is not like the pizza Americans are accustomed to. It’s a dense, flavorful bread, that comes in three styles: rossa, with a red sauce; vegetable, covered in roasted red pepper or thin-sliced zucchini or potato; or bianca, with just olive oil and coarse sea salt. The latter may be the best of all, a savory, delightfully simple lunchtime snack that’s straight from the Roman kitchens Ranni grew up in.
“You take a slice of it, you put it in a bag, and you eat it in the car. It’s very simple,” said Ranni. “This is what they eat in Italy. No cheese. You don’t need cheese. Cheese is like sugar. You don’t need too much.”
In addition to bread, Massimo’s offers expertly made espresso and an array of pastries, including fruit tarts, the lightly anise-flavored biscuit ciamballina al vino, and the sinful, sweet ravioli, filled with nutella. There’s also panini, with five simple sandwiches filled with things like pesto chicken salad or prosciutto and fresh mozzarella, ready to go. The bakery doesn’t have seating, so you’re encouraged to pick out what you want, pay and eat elsewhere — the staff is fast and friendly, so you’re in and out in under five minutes.
In the two weeks since the bakery has opened, the Rannis have been flooded with well-wishers; in the first week, congratulatory flower arrangements from regular restaurant patrons arrived nearly daily. That sense of community is one of the reasons the Rannis love Bangor.
“People here, they’re real. There is no pretending to be something else,” he said. “And they are a lot more smart about food than you would think. They know meat, they know produce, they know good things when they see it. And they are so polite. It’s great, it really is.”
Massimo’s Breads is located at 130 Hammond St. in downtown Bangor, and is open from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday.